By Dr. Mercola
Jet lag, also known as flight fatigue, time zone change syndrome or desynchronosis, occurs when travel across time zones disrupts your internal body clock, resulting in mental, emotional and physical symptoms such as:1,2
- Daytime sleepiness and lethargy followed by nighttime insomnia
- Anxiety, irritability, confusion and poor concentration
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Headache, nausea, indigestion, dehydration and/or general malaise
- Decline in physical and athletic performance3,4
There are a number of helpful tricks and “bio hacks” that can help minimize the effects of jet lag when traveling between time zones, or help you overcome the effects faster. This includes pretending you’re in your destination time zone while still at home, stimulating your heart meridian at certain times, antioxidant support and use of supplemental melatonin. Interestingly, fasting may be an overlooked but potent antidote as well. I’ll review a couple of different dietary techniques below.
How Air Travel Affects Your Body and Mind
Aside from jet lag, air travel can have a number of other health effects as well, including the following (see list below).5 Air travel is even associated with a number of psychological effects, courtesy of low oxygen levels (hypoxia), including increased anxiety, stress and other negative emotions that can make you grouchy and unfriendly.
On the other hand, a heightened emotional response can also present itself as tears of joy and relief when watching inflight entertainment. As reported by BBC News: 6
“A new survey by Gatwick Airport in London found 15 percent of men and 6 percent of women said they were more likely to cry when watching a film on a flight than they would if seeing it at home. One major airline has gone as far as issuing ‘emotional health warnings’ before inflight entertainment that might upset its customers.”
Pressure in the ears due to changes in air pressure. Chewing gum during ascent, and swallowing or yawning during descent can help equalize the pressure
Headache due to low oxygen. Prevent by drinking plenty of water and avoiding caffeine and alcohol during the flight
Foot, ankle and leg swelling, raising your risk for a blood clot, due to impaired blood flow.
Prevent by standing up now and then, and flexing, rotating and extending your ankles while sitting. Compression stockings may also be helpful
Dehydration due to dry air. Prevent by drinking plenty of water before and during the flight
Toothache due to shifts in air pressure. There’s no way to prevent the pain associated with the expansion of gas trapped in fillings or cavities, so see a dentist before traveling if you suspect you have a problem
Fatigue, sleepiness, increased reaction times and reduced ability to make decisions due to low oxygen
Gassiness due to shifts in cabin pressure
Altered/dulled sense of taste and smell. Taste sensitivity can be restored by staying well hydrated
Dry skin due to dry air — a problem easily addressed with moisturizing lotion. Also, be sure to drink plenty of water
Bad breath due to dry mouth. Remedy by brushing your teeth on the plane and staying well hydrated
Minimize Jet Lag by Pretending You’re Already There
As a general rule, your body will adjust to the time zone change at a rate of one time zone per day. What this means is, if you need to be at your physical or psychological best, you’d want to fly out one or more days ahead of time. If you cannot squeeze in the extra time, you could act “as if,” and pretend you’re in your destination time zone while still at home.7
To do this, simply wake up and go to bed according to the destination time rather than your local time. Also, be sure to shift your mealtimes accordingly. As an example, if you were planning to travel from New York to Paris, start going to bed (and shift your mealtimes up) an hour earlier each day, three days ahead of your flight, and avoid bright light for two to three hours before going to bed. Here are a couple of other helpful pointers to consider:
- In the morning, be sure to expose yourself to bright full-spectrum light. If the sun is not yet up, use a clear incandescent light bulb along with a cool-blue spectrum LED to shut down melatonin production
- If traveling at night, wear blue-blocking glasses on the plane, and continue wearing them until you go to sleep, as excess blue light will impair your melatonin production and make it difficult to fall asleep
- Once you’re at your destination, get up as close to sunrise as possible and go outside. This will help to reset your melatonin production. If weather and circumstances allow, it would be best to do this outdoors with your bare feet on the ground
The Argonne Anti-Jet Lag Diet
Another jet lag trick you rarely hear about is the Argonne anti-jet lag diet,8 detailed in a 2012 Harper’s Magazine article by Steve Hendricks.9 The diet, developed by the late Charles F. Ehret in the early 1980s when he was a senior scientist at Argonne’s Division of Biological and Medical Research, claims to be able to help you quickly adjust your internal clock to a new time zone. It’s also recommended to “speed the adjustment of shift workers … to periodically rotating work hours.”
According to Ehret, who studied chronobiology, your biological clock is cued not only by light exposure but also by when and how much you eat. The technique involves determining the time of breakfast at your destination on the day of your arrival, and then rotating feasting and fasting four days ahead of your scheduled travel, as follows:
- Day One: Feast day. “Eat heartily with high-protein breakfast and lunch, and a high-carbohydrate dinner. No coffee except between 3 and 5 p.m.” Examples of high-protein breakfast/lunch include steak, eggs and hamburger. Examples of high-carb dinner include pasta (no meatballs), crepes (without meat filling), potatoes and other starchy vegetables
- Day Two: Fast day. Avoid all carbohydrates and keep calories to a minimum. Eat only light meals of salads, soups, fruits and vegetables. If you must drink coffee or any other caffeinated beverage, drink it between 3 and 5 p.m.
- Day Three: Feast day. (Same as Day One)
- Day Four: Fast day. “If you drink caffeinated beverages, take them in morning when traveling west, or between 6 and 11 p.m. when traveling east.” Avoid all alcohol on the plane. Remain fasting until breakfast (about 7.30 a.m.) at your destination, at which time you break the fast by feasting on a high-protein breakfast
The above protocol is not intended as a healthy eating strategy other than one that seems to be helpful when seeking to remediate jet lag. But alternating between feasting and fasting overall is a healthy approach as long as your food choices are healthy. As noted by Hendricks:
“Ehret theorized that the diet worked because the days of irregular eating gradually unmoored the body’s biological clock from its usual rhythms, while the big breakfast and subsequent meals re-anchored the clock in the new time zone.
In a 2002 study published in the journal Military Medicine, National Guardsmen who followed the diet were found to be 7.5 times less likely than a control group to suffer jet lag after flying from the United States to Korea. On their return, they were 16.2 times less likely to lag. (The difference between the two flights has not been explained, although, as the authors noted, jet lag is more common flying east than flying west.)”
The Anti-Jet Lag Fast
Another even easier strategy was devised by a team of researchers at Harvard and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. The anti-jet lag fast involves determining the time of breakfast at your destination and then fasting (abstaining from all food and drink except noncaloric beverages like water) for 12 to 16 hours beforehand. As noted by Hendricks, “Since most of us go 12 to 16 hours between dinner and breakfast anyway, the abstention is a small hardship.”
This strategy is thought to work because fasting causes your master clock to suspend the circadian clock and instructs your body to sleep less. When food intake resumes, the master clock switches the circadian clock back “on.” Hendricks explains:
“The master clock probably evolved because when our prehistoric forebears were starving, they would have been tempted in their weakness to sleep rather than forage for the food they needed to survive.
Today, when a traveler suspends his circadian clock before flying from Los Angeles to London, and then reactivates it upon breaking the fast, the clock doesn’t know that it should still be on Pacific Time. It knows only that the breakfast and the daylight declare morning in Mayfair, and it resets the body’s rhythms accordingly.”
On a side note, fasting (calorie restriction) also activates a very potent biological pathway called Nrf2, a biological hormetic that upregulates all of your beneficial intercellular antioxidants. It also lowers inflammation, improves mitochondrial function and stimulates mitochondrial biogenesis, among other things. So, in addition to resetting your body’s internal clock, fasting may help you feel better when traveling for these reasons as well.
Minimize Jet Lag With Traditional Chinese Medicine
You can also trick your body into connecting with a new time zone using Traditional Chinese Medicine techniques involving the stimulation of certain acupuncture meridians. As explained by acupuncture physician John Amaro in Acupuncture Today:10
“Borrowing the knowledge of the general circulation of chi, and being aware that each meridian undergoes a two-hour time peak that moves and peaks from meridian to meridian as it travels through its general circulation, it was reasoned that if one were to reset the body clock utilizing the horary cycle, the body in theory could be made to function at the horary cycle of wherever the person is physically located on the planet, disregarding the effects of so-called ‘time travel.’
The best part of the theory is that it worked! … In virtually every instance in which the subjects were advised to stimulate the proper points based on the theoretical concept, they reported (and it was observed) that jet lag literally did not occur. They felt they were connected to the time zone of their newly arrived destination, as opposed to the time of their departure location.”
Amaro details a technique involving stimulating points for a particular meridian based on the Chinese body clock,11 where each meridian corresponds to a two-hour interval. For example, if you were to board a flight in Los Angeles at 7 p.m., heading to Tokyo, where it would then be noon local time, you would stimulate the heart meridian, as it rules between the hours of 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Two hours into your flight, 2 p.m. Tokyo time, you’d stimulate the small intestine meridian, which rules between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Every two hours, you’d stimulate the ruling meridian until you land at your destination.
Cardiologist Dr. Lee Cowden devised an even shorter version of this technique, focusing on just one meridian — the heart meridian. He explains this technique in the video above, originally taped in 2009. Here’s a summary of the steps:
1. The day of your trip, set your clock to match the local time at your destination (depending on the time of your flight, you may have to do this a day ahead)
2. At 11 a.m. (the local time at your destination), stroke your heart meridian three times on the left and three times on the right. Your heart meridian begins just to the outer side of your nipple, up through your armpit and down the ulnar aspect (inner side) of your arm, down the outside of your pinky. Once you reach the end of your pinky, gently press into the base of the fingernail (heart point in Traditional Chinese Medicine). For a demonstration, please see the video above
3. At noon, repeat the heart meridian strokes
Antioxidant Support Helps Ameliorate Jet Lag Symptoms and Shield Against Radiation
Cowden also recommends taking a high-quality, broad-spectrum antioxidant before and after boarding the plane. Astaxanthin may be an ideal choice as it also helps shield against cosmic radiation exposure, provided you’ve been taking it for at least three days ahead of time. Another antioxidant supplement that can be helpful when flying is molecular hydrogen, which is a highly effective selective antioxidant.
Tyler LeBaron’s website, molecularhydrogenfoundation.org,12 lists several hundred studies relating to hydrogen. You can also find a number of his lectures on YouTube. In summary, molecular hydrogen consists of two atoms of hydrogen, the smallest molecule in the universe, which:
- Is a neutral molecule that can instantly defuse across any cell membrane
- Has no polarity
- Is a potent, selective antioxidant
Free radicals are not all bad; they do serve important health functions. The problem is excess free radicals, or the wrong ones. Molecular hydrogen has been shown to selectively target the damaging free radicals produced in response to radiation, such as the gamma rays you encounter at 35,000 feet in the daytime. Studies have shown molecular hydrogen can mitigate about 80 percent of this damage.
If you have a healthy microbiome, your body can make about 10 liters a day of hydrogen gas. However, when you have a steady state of exposure, you don’t get the other benefits, so you need to pulse it. That’s where you get the benefit. I’ve taken molecular hydrogen tablets on my last few flights, and felt much better than I normally do when flying. There are a number of different ways to get it, but the most practical way is to take molecular hydrogen tablets.
Once you’re at about 5,000 to 10,000 feet, put the tablet in a small bottle of room temperature water, as ice water will slow the reaction. Put the cap back on and leave it on while the tablet dissolves to prevent the gas from escaping. Once dissolved, drink it as quickly as possible. The hydrogen gas will continue working for about two hours, so if you’re on a longer flight, you may want to do a second dose halfway through.
Typically, what I wind up doing is just swallowing the tablet and make sure I get at least 8 ounces of water to buffer my stomach. I will take one tablet every hour-and-a-half to two hours, so on a flight from Chicago to Los Angeles I will take two tablets, but from Atlanta to Chicago I only take one.
Melatonin May Help You Sleep
Once you reach your destination, take a fast-acting sublingual melatonin along with a slow-release oral melatonin around 10 p.m. (or just before bedtime if you go to bed earlier). Keep in mind that only a very small dose is required — typically 0.25 mg or 0.5 milligrams to start with, and you can adjust it up from there. Taking higher doses, such as 3 mg, can sometimes make you more wakeful instead of sleepier, so adjust your dose carefully.
Also be sure to stay well hydrated before and during travel, whether you’re flying or driving to your destination. Your brain controls sleep and it functions best when fully hydrated. As you can see, there are several ways to minimize jet lag, so the next time you fly, try one or more of them to find a combination that works for you.